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Using Serial Opera to Tell Similar Stories, Centuries Apart

Culture | October 7th, 2020

by John Showalter

john.d.showalter@gmail.com

The lives of countless people and the fortunes of numerous industries have been turned upside-down over the course of 2020 due to the full-blown global pandemic that is COVID-19. One of the areas that have been drastically affected is the performing arts. Concerts and live performances dragged almost to a standstill, being postponed or outright cancelled in droves. These are daunting circumstances for live performers and promoters. However, David Hamilton is not one to let challenging times keep him from promoting the arts. He just has to change up his tactics.

David Hamilton has been the director of FM Opera for 20+ years of its 50+ year existence. Additionally, he is a professor of voice at Concordia, and prior to moving to the Fargo-Moorhead area he had been a soloist in the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and several other opera companies both nationally and internationally. Under his directorship, in 2018 FM Opera launched a series of smaller works that they performed in smaller venues ranging from theaters to bars around down that was dubbed as “North of Normal Chamber Opera”. Smaller scale performances such as these, coupled with Hamilton’s vast well of experience, meant that FM Opera was up to the challenge of taking part in a new type of opera experience.

FM Opera is one of nine opera companies from around the country that are collaborating in The Decameron Opera Coalition, a novel way of approaching opera in the current global situation. Each company in the coalition commissioned its own composer and librettist to write a “mini-opera” of about 10 minutes in length, each one based on a story from the 14th century literary classic The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, but adapted to modern times. Combined together, these mini-operas form a new kind of opera experience one might call a “serial opera”.

“As far as I know this has never been done before,” said Hamilton. “This collaboration between nine companies is a very new idea.” Though companies like The Metropolitan Opera have live streamed performances to movie theaters in the past, this approach is markedly different. “One difference in this project and the Met is that this is more like a film festival. You can watch each release as it happens or binge the whole thing later. You can also go back and watch as often as you like. In a lot of ways it really is like a film festival of opera shorts.”

The choice of Decameron as the inspiration for this project is hardly a coincidence either. The backdrop for Boccaccio’s classic of Italian literature was another historical pandemic: The Black Death. The book was structured as 100 tales being shared by a group of ten Italians over the course of ten nights as they fled to the countryside from Florence to avoid the plague. Despite the centuries that have passed, a plague isn’t the only thing we share in common with Boccaccio’s group of storytellers. “Humans are still humans,” said Hamilton. “The stories are full of cheating husbands and wives along with corrupt politicians and clergy. It has been said that if Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, Boccaccio wrote the Human Comedy. It’s like the longest dirty book I know of-although it’s written in highly coded language.”

FM Opera’s contribution to the coalition, titled “Dinner 4 3” regards a wealthy businessman and his trophy wife who are trapped in an unfulfilling marriage. They both resort to internet dating websites seeking extramarital partners and make dates to meet them, only to have their affairs not go quite as planned. They discover the underlying problem in their marriage and reach an understanding. The libretto (which is in English) was written by Deborah Brevoort, a Broadway playwright who is best known for her play The Women of Lockerbie, which has been produced all over the world. Along with a whole slew of awards to her name, she was commissioned to write a full-length comedy called The Drolls during the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to this project. The composer is Michael Ching, whose opera Speed Dating Tonight! (where he served as both composer and librettist) has had almost ninety productions since its 2013 premier, making it one of the most popular 21st century operas.

Even after this pandemic is behind us, Hamilton sees a lot of potential for this kind of production. “I could see this kind of collaboration project continuing well past the current situation. I think this is a great new avenue for us to connect with a larger audience – especially those who think opera is too hoity-toity and just about old stories and wouldn’t normally come to the theater. This kind of work really speaks to today with stories that are about our lives right now.”

In the meantime, this kind of outside-the-box thinking and utilization of digital technology helps provide us with an artistic outlet, even if the circumstances are a bit unusual. 

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